(WSB photo, June 2015: 35th/Roxbury site purchased for charter-school development)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Before California-based charter-school operator Summit Public Schools even opens its first two campuses in our state, it’s in the thick of awareness-raising for its pending-state-approval third one, a middle/high school at a supermarket-turned-church in Arbor Heights.
That awareness-raising includes a public forum at the planned West Seattle site on July 21st – a key test Summit must pass before the state Charter School Commission decides whether to let it go ahead with its plan (which is spelled out in this 472-page application).
We’ve been reporting on the Arbor Heights plan since we dug early word out of a city file at the start of the year. But much of our coverage in the ensuing six months has focused on the physical plan for the school, planned for the southwest corner of 35th/Roxbury, the property recently sold by Freedom Church/Jesus Center to Washington Charter School Development for $4.75 million. Meanwhile, our reports have sparked comment discussions on what might or might not happen at the school. While voters in our state approved charter schools – which are public schools, run with public dollars (explained here) – three years ago, so far only one is open.
More are about to launch – the prospective operator of West Seattle’s first charter school, Summit, is getting ready to open two charter high schools in the International District and in Tacoma next month. The school year starts in mid-August; they’re moving into the locations on August 3rd. While overseeing all that, the woman in charge of Summit’s operations in this state – including the West Seattle middle/high school – sat down with us for a conversation this week.
Here’s what we learned while talking with Jen Davis Wickens, who leads Summit’s “schools team” for Washington:
The Seattle and Tacoma schools will start with 115 ninth-graders each and will add a grade a year for each of the next three years, reaching full enrollment at just over 400 students each. The West Seattle school is planned as a middle and high school, so it would launch in fall of next year with 6th and 9th grades, also around 100 students per grade. Summit operates middle and high schools in California, where it was founded more than a decade ago, Wickens said.
Why just run the first two as high schools? It’s because of the five-year duration of the Washington charter law, she said – “we intentionally (are launching) the first two as high schools so we can show college-entrance data when the law (comes up for renewal).” If the law is renewed, they will consider adding middle-school grades to those first two schools. “We’d rather have a longer runway – we want to have more time to get students truly, truly ready.” (No elementary, she says – that’s outside the college-prep mission.)
“College track,” she says, is the only “track” in Summit schools, meaning that all students take the courses required to be considered for college, not necessarily the only track in “comprehensive” high schools. A key point of how she says Summit operates is monitoring and intervention: “We just do not let kids fail – we can do that because we’re small and nimble.” That includes the actual process of applying to college – she says a “college director” meets with each family to help them with it, and that there’s a group event at which “everybody gets together and hits ‘send'” on applications, as well as community congratulations “every time a kid gets in.” But on a more day-to-day basis, she explains, a “mentor” is assigned for every 18 students, and works with them as they progress through grades. Students have “personalized learning plans” that are kept online where, she says, parents, students, and teachers all can see how it’s going, rather than potentially going for weeks or months either flailing or not being challenged enough.
That’s part of a structure that Wickens says looks “wildly different” from a traditional public school – part of the day working on the “personalized” plan, sometimes individually, sometimes in small groups, sometimes with their “mentor.” They have “tiered intervention” for reading and math. And 25 percent of each student’s “experience” involves what Summit has dubbed “expeditions” – from exploring “personal passions” such as the arts or other electives, to community-service projects, and beyond. (The mural-painting mentioned in our report in mid-May was described as “expedition”-style work for the future Summit students who were participating.)
While the students work on their “expeditions,” teachers get 40 days of “paid professional development,” according to Wickens, which she says is a draw for “top national talent.”
About the teachers: Charter skeptics/critics have voiced concerns about who Summit will hire here and what qualifications they’ll have. The Summit application states clearly that they will be employed “at will” – non-union – so that’s one big difference from non-charter public schools. Wickens says our state requires teachers to have Washington credentials, “not an easy process,” and that all the teachers in their first two schools “have credentials in hand” as of earlier this week.
But when we mention Teach For America – a program that some skeptics/critics say has put underqualified teachers in schools – Wickens says, “We’re really supportive of that work, and the need to cultivate more (teaching) talent. We believe in a portfolio approach to teachers – we would never have a school full of first-year teachers … This year we don’t have any TFA corps members,” but a “handful” of “alumni” from the program. She also mentions two teachers from other local districts – Seattle, Highline – on the staff of the schools they’re about to open, and “seed teachers” from Summit schools in Northern California’s Bay Area. “We won’t mess around with any of the compliance – we know there’s a lot of questions about charters,” and, she says, they don’t want to provide any fuel for that fire.
The West Seattle school’s designated principal, Greg Ponikvar, is waiting in the wings, ready to start what they call the “zero year” if and when they get state approval. He’s been with the Summit organization in California for a long time, Wickens says, and launched the “expeditions” program; she says he is in the process of moving to West Seattle and “can’t wait to build roots” here. His work for the next year would include spending “a lot of time” in the first two Summit schools here.
So what does a day look like, we ask, given the “wildly different” description? First: The school year is longer, starting three weeks before traditional public schools, ending a week earlier. (A six-week summer-school program will be offered too, she said, for those in need of and interested in “extra support.”) The school day tends to be “slightly longer,” Wickens explains, in the 8:30 am-3 pm vicinity. It includes “community time,” personalized learning time, project-based-learning time. She mentions students working together yet at different levels of the same program or project. For technology, it’s “a 1 to 1 student to computer ratio – all students have Chromebooks, all of our campuses are wireless.”
One component of the “community time” relates to their disciplinary model, which she describes as “restorative justice.” While she reiterates that they follow state law if students do something requiring suspensions or expulsion, otherwise, if it’s an issue such as “acting out in class,” they work on “strategies”: “We want everybody to thrive and get into college – we do everything we can to keep them in school.”
What about students with baseline challenges such as English Language Learners or special education? For ELL, Wickens says, “we anticipate serving the same percentage (as non-charter public schools) – we try to mirror the demographics of the district. It’s a mainstream program, with push-in and pullout support.” For special education, each school will have its own SPED director. She notes that SPED families are attracted to Summit because every student has an individual learning plan, not just those with challenges, “so it’s not weird, there’s less stigma – our model is set up to be (entirely) differentiated.”
As for the practicalities of operating schools have been a challenge too – “who’s going to provide our lunch, transportation, janitorial services” – and Wickens says Summit has partnered with Green Dot, another charter organization that is opening schools in this state this fall, “to get this work done together.”
That leads us to ask about transportation for the West Seattle school – will it have its own buses for some students, or will it be entirely a matter of getting there via Metro or personally provided transportation? “If approved, we’ll start a parent advisory group (to) talk about place-based issues for the community,” such as transportation. “For the (International District) and Tacoma schools, we decided with parents that it made sense to get ORCA passes for all the kids – we get state transportation funding that you must use for transportation,” so that’s what they bought with it. Transportation also is a matter of “personalized plans” for their students, she said, including providing families with a list of others within a mile of their residence, “so they can reach out for carpools.”
As for who those families will be – recruitment, she says, starts in earnest after the approval is received. If they have more applications than spots, a “random public lottery” will be used; applicants will get a lottery number in March. In the meantime, interested families will have opportunities to tour the two Summit schools that are about to open.
Before then – there’s the July 21st “community forum,” which will be at the West Seattle site (9601 35th SW), 6-8 pm, with dinner and child care. “We really want people to come – it’s a perfect opportunity, whether you’re supportive or a complete opponent,” Wickens said. Summit will have a presentation; Q/A and “community testimony” will be included. “It’s a great chance for someone to say whether they do or don’t want us in the community, to ask the really hard questions, to get the right answers.” Some West Seattle students are enrolled in the International District school that’s about to open, and she says their families will be at the forum. Almost all the ID students are from south of the Ship Canal, and Wickens describes the enrollment as 78 percent students of color; in Tacoma, they’re launching with 82 percent students of color, mostly from that city but a few students from Fife and other nearby districts.
Before we wrap up our conversation, we talk about a few more points of clarification. In a comment discussion, there was a suggestion that families have to donate time and/or money. “They’re welcome to … but not required,” Wickens says. “There’s no required volunteer time or donated money. We have set up ways parents can engage in the school, but the school and model don’t depend on parent volunteers.”
Then: Why is a separate organization – Washington Charter School Development, linked to a California nonprofit that does the same thing – building the school?
“Charter school facilities are an enormous challenge, even more here than we’d anticipated… It costs a lot of money … and there are many requirements to be able to renovate sites and eve be able to have us have kids in a site safely, pass inspections. They (WCSD) know how to do this, set up spaces for kids … We’re lucky to have them here; they received grant funding to find and renovate and purchase facilities for Summit and Green Dot … we will lease it back from them at a fair-market rate, part of our criteria for coming to Washington.”
For more specifics about the building plan itself – which we reported most recently is now going to be done in phases, with renovation of the existing building first, then adding on later – we’re referred to WCSD, so that will be part of a future followup. Wickens is more about what’s going to be happening inside the school.
Assuming the charter for West Seattle is approved, she says, Ponikvar will start August 17th, meeting with people, “going door-to-door literally, phone banking, being at festivals, community organizing, listening to the needs of the families, to (ensure) that every single family in White Center and West Seattle knows that Summit’s an option for them if they’re an incoming sixth or ninth grader [for fall 2016].” (The organization already is doing outreach – shortly after our interview with Wickens, a reader texted us about flyers for the forum being distributed near 35th/Henderson.)
And there’s another goal, Wickens volunteers: “The second part of our mission is to impact public education on a broader scale,” to spread what Summit calls “next-generation learning” to other charters and to existing public-school districts. She says they “give everything away for free” regarding their program models.
Critics/skeptics point out that education reformers have lavished cash on charters – for example, the donors who fund the California parent of WCSD, which bought and will develop the West Seattle site for Summit. Wickens’ view: “Because I’m so close to the work, I see that what we do is transformative for kids and families. Where the money comes from is less important than actually getting the kid to college. That changes their future. To not allow kids to have access to that future – I have a hard time with that argument.”
Here’s more information on the July 21st public forum in West Seattle – including how to send written comments if you can’t be there in person.